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Celebrity Announces New Cruise Line Azamara Cruises

Back in November 2006, Celebrity Cruises acquired two 710-passenger vessels from Spain's Pullmantur Cruises and announced plans to add them to its under-the-radar Celebrity Expeditions brand, which currently operates only Galapagos Islands cruises. Last week, though, the line changed direction and announced that the new vessels would instead make up the initial fleet of a brand-new cruise line, to be known as Azamara Cruises (tel. 877/999-9553; www.azamaracruises.com).

The new line was born on Saturday, concurrent with the introduction of its first vessel, Azamara Journey. It will concentrate on offering exotic, destination-driven cruises, with an onboard vibe somewhere between upper-mainstream and luxury -- the same niche, in fact, as Oceania Cruises, whose three ships are all identical sisters to the two Azamara vessels, all of them having been built for Renaissance Cruises right around the turn of the millennium.

According to Celebrity/Azamara President Dan Hanrahan, "Azamara Cruises is expressly designed for travel enthusiasts who appreciate what a cruise vacation has to offer, but are looking for something a little different, and a little more special," with a more intimate onboard experience and itineraries that visit less-traveled ports of call.

Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest will offer dining in a main dining room and two specialty restaurants -- the Mediterranean-influenced Aqualina and the steak-and-seafood Prime C restaurant on Journey and a yet-to-be-announced pair on Quest. Suite guests will receive two nights of complimentary dining in one of the specialty restaurants, while guests in staterooms will receive one. As aboard Oceania, the ships will not require formal attire for dining, and will feature open seating in the main dining room. An onboard wine bar will offer wine and champagne tastings, seminars, and mini-pairings of food and wine, in addition to a standard menu of wines by the glass or bottle. Both ships also will offer an outdoor spa relaxation lounge and an aesthetics suite offering acupuncture, laser hair removal, and micro-dermabrasion. All staterooms and suites will offer butler service, along with amenities like fresh-cut flowers, fresh fruit, Elemis toiletries, complimentary use of Frette cotton robes, two complimentary pairs of slippers, plasma TVs, and plush bedding.

Journey's initial season will offer Bermuda itineraries from Bayonne, NJ, beginning May 5, 2007. A sister ship, Azamara Quest, will debut in October with a series of 12- to 14-night Caribbean sailings, followed by 14-night eastbound and westbound Panama Canal itineraries. New itineraries, which have yet to be announced, will visit more than 200 ports in more than 70 countries around the world. According to Celebrity, most of them will be ports new to cruise travelers.

FYI, they made up the word "Azamara." According to Celebrity, it's a term"rooted in Romance language references to blue ('aza'), the sea ('mar'), and a lesser-known word, 'acamar,' which, in Classical times, was the southernmost bright star that could be seen from the latitude of Greece."

NCL Goes to E-Tickets for All Ships, All Sailings

It works for the airlines, so why not the cruise lines? As of May 28, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) will do away with traditional paper tickets and instead go to a system where guests or their travel agents can download all their documents from the line's website.

Guests with fully paid reservations after May 28 will receive e-mail messages from NCL telling them that their electronic documents are ready and can be accessed via an embedded link in the e-mail. The complete"package" of electronic documents includes a welcome-aboard letter, cruise ticket, passenger terms and conditions, airline e-ticket and pre- or post-cruise hotel vouchers (if applicable), pre- or post-cruise transfer vouchers (if applicable), and printable electronic luggage tag.

Guests without their own e-mail accounts or Internet access can have their travel agent collect their documents for them.

In addition to the e-docs, passengers will still receive a traditional pre-documentation package with a welcome letter, a welcome-aboard Q&A booklet, a shore excursion order form and booklet, personalized luggage tags, and travel insurance details (if applicable).

Carnival News: Bloggers, Names, More Europe, and More

Three little stories this week from the Fun Ship folks (tel. 800-/327-9501; www.carnival.com):

Carnival to Host First-Ever Bloggers' Cruise: A little over a month ago, Carnival's senior cruise director, John Heald, launched a blog at johnheald.wordpress.com, detailing Carnival Freedom's inaugural season in Europe. About 200,000 people have viewed the blog, so Carnival has decided to offer a special "Blogger's Cruise" for fans and Carnival regulars. The cruise will sail from Miami on January 19, 2008, visiting Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, and Cozumel (Mexico). Onboard, Heald will host Q&A sessions. Prices start at $599 per person, double occupancy.

Carnival Makes Ship Names Longer and Harder to Type: Continuing a branding trend that's been with us now for several years, Carnival has just announced that it was changing the names of its old Fantasy-class ships (Ecstasy, Elation, Fantasy, Fascination, Imagination, Inspiration, Paradise, and Sensation) to Carnival Ecstasy, Carnival Elation, Carnival Fantasy, Carnival Fascination, Carnival Imagination, Carnival Inspiration, Carnival Paradise, and Carnival Sensation, thus creating more work for those of us who write about cruises for a living -- assuming we choose to type the full new names, which we won't. The renaming comes as part of the line's $250 million"Evolutions of Fun" refurbishment program, which aims to bring its older vessels nearer to the standard of its new megaships. Upgrades to all eight Fantasy-class ships are expected to be complete by 2009.

First Carnival Northern Europe Cruises Set for Summer 2008: When Carnival's new 113,300-ton, 3,006-passenger Splendor... sorry, Carnival Splendour debuts in July 2008, it will do so with a season of Northern European cruises, the first ever for the Fun Ship line. The five 12-night cruises will depart from London/Dover and visit Copenhagen (Denmark), Warnemunde/Berlin (Germany), Helsinki (Finland), St. Petersburg (Russia, for two nights), Tallin (Estonia), and Amsterdam (Netherlands). Prices start from $1,299 per person, double occupancy. Other cruises slated for Splendor's inaurual season include 12-night Mediterranean/Greek Isles voyages, a 16-night transatlantic crossing, and 7-night Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale.

R Family Vacations Gears Up for Fifth Gay and Lesbian Family Cruise

R Family Vacations (tel. 866/732-6822; www.rfamilyvacations.com), a family-oriented gay and lesbian travel company founded in 2004 by Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell and travel entrepreneur Gregg Kaminsky, is gearing up for its fifth big cruise from New York, departing for the Caribbean July 7 aboard NCL's Norwegian Dawn. The ship will call at Port Canaveral (for access to Disney and the other Orlando parks), Key West, and a private island. The cruise was originally intended to spend two days in Bermuda, but what the company describes as"a minority of vocal churches" expressed opposition to the visit. According to a statement by Kaminski on the R Family website, despite a personal appeal by Bermuda's prime minister,"Kelli and I are not 100% confident that some protestors would not meet us upon our arrival. While those groups may be the minority voice, we feel that our cruise would be more enjoyable with an alternate itinerary to ports where we know we are welcome by everyone."

R Family Vacations is a travel company for gay men and lesbians and their families of both birth and choice -- children, parents, relatives, friends, couples, and individuals. Unlike many more party-oriented gay and lesbian cruises, R Family trips offer a relaxed, family-oriented experience with extensive kids' programs to suit the 80-some percent of guests who bring their children aboard. For adults, guest entertainers and activity leaders include the pop band Erasure; Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole; comedians Judy Gold, Alec Mapa, and Jessica Kirson; and yoga instructor Susan Powter.

And yes, they offer weddings on board. Last year they did 23 of them.

Columbia Queen Makes Inaugural Sailing for Majestic America Line

Last week, the 150-passenger Columbia Queen, originally built in 2000 and most recently operated by Great American River Journeys, embarked passengers for her first sailing under the flag of Majestic America Line (tel. 800/434-1232; www.majesticamericaline.com), the new cruise line created last year through the merging of the Delta Queen and American West fleets. She'll sail weekly on the Pacific Northwest's Columbia, Snake, and Willamette rivers through October, departing from Portland, Oregon.

Columbia Queen "was specifically built to travel the Columbia River," says Majestic America Line President David Giersdorf,"and provides a superior level of comfort and amenities while showcasing the vibrant culture, history and natural wonders of the region."

Like Majestic America's other river ships, the small vessel was designed in 19th-century steamboat style, with a boxy, filigreed exterior; public rooms appointed with pressed-tin ceilings and crystal chandeliers; and woody, antique-look staterooms. Her itineraries make a dramatic passage through the Columbia River Gorge, allowing guests to retrace the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and take in the beautiful Pacific Northwest scenery as the ship traverses eight locks and dams.

The addition of Columbia Queen doubles Majestic America's capacity in the Pacific Northwest, which was already served by her 142-passenger fleetmate Queen of the West.

Seabourn Offers Private European Shore Excursions

Luxury lines are in the business of taking everything that's awful about mass-market cruising and chucking it out the porthole, to be replaced by something much more satisfying and much, much more expensive. At Seabourn Cruise Line (tel. 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com), the subject of the day is shore excursions. If you've been on any truly awful ones -- and who hasn't? -- you'll appreciate the luxe line's new slate of personalized excursions-for-two, more than sixty of which will be available in ports of call throughout Europe for summer 2007.

It works like this: Pre-cruise, passengers contact Seabourn's Signature Service Desk, where personal tour planners are available to help you plan special-interest experiences customized to your personal taste. In most cases, these private tours are offered in sedans with a driver for a maximum of two guests, or in vans that seat up to six. Some customizable options include:

  • Learning the art of creating personalized scents from Lorenzo Villoresi, a master who crafts custom blends for private clients in his 15th-century Florentine palazzo.
  • Visiting a Russian family in their summer dacha outside St. Petersburg, to chat over tea.
  • Hiking, kayaking, or mountain biking in the rugged back country of Mallorca, with an expert guide.
  • Visiting Berlin's Meilenwerk complex of vintage car repair shops, exhibits, car clubs, and shops.
  • Ferrying from Aalesund, Norway, to the workshop of an award-winning sculptural furniture maker, then marveling at an exhibition of fine wood furniture at Sykkilven.

In addition to custom shore experiences, the line's Signature Service Desk can arrange pre- and post-cruise stays in some of the world's finest hotels, air transportation, ground transfers and overland Seabourn Journeys to inland attractions. The Signature Service Desk can be reached by calling Seabourn at tel. 800/929-9391.

Deilmann Combines Cruising and Cycling on European River Cruises

Want to cycle through Europe without having to lug sixty pounds of gear in your panniers? Then you might want to check out Peter Dielmann Cruises (tel. 800/348-8287; www.deilmann-cruises.com). This summer and fall, the German line is offering weekly cruises on the Seine, Rhone, Danube, and Elbe rivers that feature countryside cycling during the day, gourmet meals in the evening, and luxuriously appointed accommodations at night.

Itinerary options include:

  • On the Seine: The Seine cycling tours start in Fontainebleau, where there is dinner and an overnight stay in a four-star hotel. Participants then board the ship for an overnight in Paris. There are bicycle rides to the market town of Milly-la-Fôret and along country roads through the beautiful Pays de Caux to Tancarville Castle. From Le Havre, participants cycle to the Brotonne Nature Reserve and Calvados Apple Orchards before an afternoon sail to Rouen. Other cycling excursions visit the 11th century monastery of Jumiege and Monet's house and garden at Giverny. The 7-night cruises are offered aboard the MV Cezanne, with rates starting at $2,870 per person for an outside twin cabin, and includes one extra night at Fontainebleau's Napoleon Hotel (with dinner and breakfast), six escorted cycling tours, bicycle rental and service, accompanying driver, refreshments, lunches and picnics, transfers, excursions and entrance fees.
  • On the Rhône: The cycling cruises aboard the MV Princesse de Provence on the Rhône River begin with dinner and overnight stay at the four-star Hostellerie du Vieux-Pérouges in medieval Pérouges, plus a cycling excursion through the forests, fields, and meadows of Lyon. Bikers ride through the wine regions of southern Burgundy and Beaujolais, to the Ardeche plateau, the medieval town of Viviers, to Les-Baux, the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and to the Roman theater of Orange. The ship sails round-trip from Lyon and calls at Tournous, Mâcon, Trévoux, Tournon, Arles, Avignon, and Vienne. Rates start at $2,780 per person for an outside twin cabin and include your 7-night cruise, the hotel overnight in Pérouges (with dinner and breakfast), six escorted cycling tours, two wine tastings, lunches and afternoon picnics, transfers, excursions, entrance fees, and farewell dinner in Lyon.
  • On the Danube (from Passau): The Danube cycling river cruises aboard the MV Mozart begin with an overnight stay at the Hotel Residence in Passau, Germany, two hours from Munich. The cycling excursions follow paths along the Inn River; ride along the Danube through Austria's Wachau wine region; take in small country roads, orchards, and wine terraces leading to Vienna; and visit rustic"Heurigen" wine taverns in the Viennese Forest and along the Danube Bend to a Hungarian village. The cruise includes overnights in Vienna, Budapest, and Passau, and guided tours of Budapest, Bratislava, and the imposing Baroque Abbey at Melk. From Melk, there is cycling along the Danube to the village of Poechlam and the town of Ybbs. Rates start at $3,192 per person for an outside double or twin and include your 7-night cruise, one night at the Residence in Passau (with dinner and breakfast), five escorted cycling tours, lunches, picnics, one wine tasting, transfers, excursions, entrance fees, and accompanying driver.
  • On the Danube (from Hamburg): The MV Dresden cruise and cycling tours depart from Hamburg and begin with a walking tour of the city, dinner, and an overnight stay at the Louis C. Jacob Hotel. Cycling excursions are along the Elbe River through fruit plantations, to the medieval town of Tangermünde, the gardens of Worlitz, Moritzburg Castle, the Elbe Valley to Pillnitz Castle, the wine village of Copitz, and along the Elbe River to the Czech border. Guided excursions visit Magdeburg Cathedral, Wittenberg Castle (where Martin Luther posted his 95 theses), Albrechtsburg Castle, the porcelain design studios at Meissen, and the restored city of Dresden. Rates start at $2,565 per person for an outside twin cabin and include the 7-night cruise, one night's hotel accommodations (with dinner and breakfast), five escorted cycling tours, lunches, picnics, transfers, excursions, entrance fees, and accompanying driver.

Depending on the itinerary, non-cycling cruise companions can deduct between $767 and $1,155 from the cruisetour price.

You Can't Drive the Ship, but You Can Drive This

Some cruise ship novelty attractions seem to make sense, and some don't. For the former, think the surfing simulator on Royal Caribbean's Freedom and Liberty of the Seas. You're out at sea, and you're surfing -- it works. The new Costa Serena from Costa Cruises (tel. 800/GO-COSTA; www.costacruises.com), though, has an entirely weirder proposition to offer: You're out at sea . . . and you're driving a Grand Prix race car. Huh?

Wherever the logic lies, here're the details: The simulator is installed on Deck 12 of the ship, nearly 100 feet above the sea, and the video simulations were produced from a real Grand Prix race car. Strap yourself in and you can pretend to be driving 217 miles per hour around a challenging virtual racing circuit. Participants can choose from four levels of difficulty, from"Test Mode" to"Championship Mode."

And afterward? Guess it's Michelob Time.

Costa Serena will be christened in Marseille on May 19, and sail from Venice to Greece, Turkey, and Croatia in her inaugural season.

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